Can I get disability benefits for anxiety?

Yes, you can receive disability benefits for anxiety, but only if there is medical evidence demonstrating the required level of severity. As a starting point, you must have a diagnosis from a psychiatrist or other doctor. But a diagnosis is not enough. Many people are diagnosed with anxiety, receive appropriate treatment, and are able to work. In order to receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, your impairment must be so severe that is prevents you from working. Social Security uses a five-step determination process to decide whether your impairment is disabling. There are two points in the process where you may be found disabled: because you meet or equal a listing defined in the Listings of Impairments, or because, despite not meeting a listing, you are unable to do any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, considering your functional capacity, age, education and work experience.

Meeting the Listing for Anxiety

If you meet a listing, then you can be found disabled, and the determination process does not need to proceed any further. People who have been diagnosed with anxiety may have other diagnoses as well, to which different listings may apply, but Listing 12.06, Anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, corresponds most precisely to an anxiety diagnosis. You can read the full requirements of Listing 12.06 on Social Security’s website. As with other listings, there is a set of “A” criteria for the symptoms, and a set of “B” or “C” criteria for the resulting limitations.

Let’s look at the Listing, which reads as follows:

12.06 Anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders (see 12.00B5), satisfied by A and B, or A and C:

A. Medical documentation of the requirements of paragraph 1, 2, or 3:

  1. Anxiety disorder, characterized by three or more of the following;
    1. Restlessness;
    2. Easily fatigued;
    3. Difficulty concentrating;
    4. Irritability;
    5. Muscle tension; or
    6. Sleep disturbance.
  2. Panic disorder or agoraphobia, characterized by one or both:
    1. Panic attacks followed by a persistent concern or worry about additional panic attacks or their consequences; or
    2. Disproportionate fear or anxiety about at least two different situations (for example, using public transportation, being in a crowd, being in a line, being outside of your home, being in open spaces).
  3. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, characterized by one or both:
    1. Involuntary, time-consuming preoccupation with intrusive, unwanted thoughts; or
    2. Repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing anxiety.


B. Extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two, of the following areas of mental functioning (see 12.00F):

  1. Understand, remember, or apply information (see 12.00E1).
  2. Interact with others (see 12.00E2).
  3. Concentrate, persist, or maintain pace (see 12.00E3).
  4. Adapt or manage oneself (see 12.00E4).


C. Your mental disorder in this listing category is “serious and persistent;” that is, you have a medically documented history of the existence of the disorder over a period of at least 2 years, and there is evidence of both:

  1. Medical treatment, mental health therapy, psychosocial support(s), or a highly structured setting(s) that is ongoing and that diminishes the symptoms and signs of your mental disorder (see 12.00G2b); and
  2. Marginal adjustment, that is, you have minimal capacity to adapt to changes in your environment or to demands that are not already part of your daily life (see 12.00G2c).

Regarding the symptoms, as you can see, there are specific criteria that correspond to anxiety disorder, panic disorder or agoraphobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These “A” criteria are usually not difficult to prove, as someone would normally not be diagnosed with the disorder unless they had the symptoms.

Regarding the limitations, or “B” criteria, the disorder must result in marked difficulties in at least two out of the four specified areas of mental functioning. “Marked” is defined as greater than moderate and less than extreme. In the alternative, the limitations requirement is satisfied if there is an extreme limitation in only one area. The “B” criteria are the crucial factors that need to be proved in order to meet a listing.

The “C” criteria are an alternative way of proving that someone meets a listing. If your mental disorder is “serious and persistent” and meets the two “C” requirements, then this takes the place of the “B” requirements.

Proving Disability Based on Residual Functional Capacity

Even if you do not meet a listing, you may be found disabled based on your residual functional capacity (RFC). While Social Security applies the grid rules when considering your physical RFC, there are no such grids for your mental RFC.

In determining your mental RFC, Social Security will examine your social and intellectual limitations, including limitations on understanding and memory, sustained concentration and persistence, social interaction and adaptation. If Social Security finds that you are markedly or extremely limited in one or more areas, you may be found disabled, whereas a finding of only mild or moderate limitations will usually not result in you being found disabled.

At a hearing, the administrative law judge will ask a vocational expert to testify. The judge will describe hypothetical individuals with certain limitations, and ask the vocational expert whether there are jobs that exist in the national economy that such a person could do. Two factors that often play a role are the number of days you would be expected to be absent from a job, and the amount of time in a typical workday that you would be expected to be “off-task” due to your mental impairments.

If there is no simple, unskilled job you can do, then you can be found disabled. If you have physical limitations or other mental impairments in addition to anxiety, then Social Security must consider the combination of your impairments and limitations.

Proving Your Case at Hearing

Qualifying for disability benefits for anxiety can be difficult. If your initial application is denied, then you should consider hiring a Social Security disability attorney who can help you collect the evidence you need and argue your case at a hearing before an administrative law judge.

It is often the case that the existing medical records do not provide enough information about how your mental limitations affect your functional capacity. Medical records may include only a brief report of symptoms and medications prescribed. In these situations, your attorney may put together a questionnaire about your limitations for your treating physician to complete. This will constitute a medical opinion that the judge will have to consider, and it can be a valuable counterbalance to the opinions of consultative examiners that Social Security may have sent you to earlier in the process.